His professional achievements aside, Quentin Blake’s life has been rather short on biographical event, so this book is not a biography. (That gets dispatched briefly in a six-page timeline.) Rather, it’s a grateful appreciation — partisan, certainly, but well argued — of all that this remarkable artist has given us. Through his books, his pictures on hospital walls and his support for a variety of campaigns, Blake has brought joy, laughter and solace. The pictures in this book will make you smile.
Blake’s 300-plus publications include many he originated himself, among them some of the supreme examples of picture-book art — think of the slyly hilarious counting books Cockatoos and Mister Magnolia, and his wordless masterpiece Clown, for just three; and then there are his illustrations to other writers’ stories, including serial collaborations with Russell Hoban, John Yeoman, Joan Aiken and — of course — Roald Dahl.
The drawings are at the heart of it all, and Ghislaine Kenyon is very good at evoking a sense of not only the artist at work, but of the images themselves, those scratchy, energetic people, animals and other assorted creatures (Zagazoo!) that skitter across his pages and walls so freely. (That word ‘skitter’ is Kenyon’s, and it’s perfect.) The French writer and illustrator François Place wrote:
Whenever I feel a prisoner of my well-behaved line, of my rather too plodding concern for detail, I open a Quentin Blake, in the way that one might open a window to air a room and to take in a great gulp of air.
Blake’s connections with France are extensive, earning a chapter of their own here. Other sections deal with his predilection for birds and angels, with his quiet missionary work on behalf of drawing, with his instinct for how we learn. (He himself studied under F.R. Leavis, whose teaching methods he found over-prescriptive.) For Blake, ‘Books are primers in the development of the emotional, moral and imaginative life — a celebration of what it is like to be a human being.’
He combines delectable silliness with deep human empathy, an unparalleled professional consistency with a constant ability to surprise. Kenyon is full of praise for her subject, but the greatest compliment she pays him, in a society that so undervalues books for children, is to take his work seriously. Her book is a celebration, yes, but not one that’s rooted in sentiment or nostalgia; rather, in insightful analysis of what makes this artist unique and why his effect on us is so comprehensively positive. It’s an apt and well-deserved celebration.